Words: Les Clarke
The North Face knows a thing or two about making outdoor equipment; the ubiquitous brand can be found on the side of a tent atop a massive Himalayan peak, on the pack of an adventure racer in an equatorial jungle or the feet of some of the world's best trail ultra runners.
It's a focus on the latter that enabled The North Face to develop the Ultra TR platform which, if I'm completely honest, was a shoe that lacked a lot of punch in the market.
The new Ultra TR III is a grand departure from its predecessor; by grand we mean large AND better... An improved upper, outsole and midsole are evidence of that fact and all add up to a shoe that is lighter, more agile and more protective underfoot.
And did we mention it wins in the beauty contest, too?
With loads of input from American ultra runner and two-time Western States champion Timmy Olson, the Ultra TR III is clearly the product of athlete collaboration; it's something the company is focusing on in its footwear range, and with the likes of recent Tarawera Ultramarathon winner Dylan Bowman, former UTMB winner Rory Bosio, Zach Miller and Olson on the books, why wouldn't you go to the experts for advice?
One of the most exciting developments in the Ultra TR III is its use of FastFoam, a dual-density proprietary midsole material that is light, yet responsive and protective. Its presence makes the Ultra TR III a shoe worthy of ultra distances, where protection, weight and comfort are crucial.
On the subject of comfort, the Ultra TR III features a roomy toebox that's ideal for higher volume feet, plus a no-sew TPU toe bumper, gusseted tongue and air mesh to aid in ventilation - particularly good in hot, Australian conditions.
So, how does this all combine on the run?
The initial try-on saw me smile, as the Ultra TR III is a generous, easily true-to-size fit. Heel security is good thanks to the lightweight internal heel counter and there's solid achilles support due to an ankle collar which also features a useful 3M reflective element - good for those low light runs.
The Ultra TR III is capable when you need a quicker turnover, which is great for those flatter, faster sections - there's responsiveness in the FastFoam midsole and the 6mm drop offers enough support whilst allowing for a great degree of 'freedom' in your stride. Manufacturers are increasingly using the 6mm platform as it seems to be a sweet spot for many runners when they discover it.
On technical terrain - admittedly not the challenge of a Pyrenean pass but adequately interesting and techy Sydney singletrack - the Ultra TR III has plenty to offer. Foot security isn't an issue and the Vibram Megagrip outsole does what it always says on the box - provides mega grip and inspires confidence.
A casual 20km out of the box posed no problems in terms of blisters or hot spots and I believe they're going to get even better with use. They're not the lightest shoe on the market at a claimed 278g per shoe in a men's size US 9; with the amount of useful cushioing on offer, the Ultra TR III is a big improvement on the previous iteration of this shoe and The North Face is definitely heading in the right direction.
Aesthetically, the Ultra TR III is on-point and The North Face has done an excellent job of taking a shoe that was pretty pedestrian and turning it into a shoe that looks good, performs well and seems likely to be robust. There's plenty of protection on offer throughout the outsole, midsole and upper, whilst fit and feel is great.
I'd recommend The North Face Ultra TR III for both new and experienced trail runners alike because it offers the vital elements of a trail shoe and looks good, too. It demonstrates the company's renewed focus on delivering shoes that complement their extensive range of outdoor goods, not just existing as an afterthought.